Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Remembrance Day: They who question also serve

Every year I try to write a Remembrance Day post (or Veteran’s Day, as it is called here, which I feel gives the whole thing a rather different flavour). They’re generally pompous, except when they’re about buying new baby-manglers , but I’m going to go with informative this time (well, informative and pompous).

I can’t claim to be an expert on the military, nor do I feel comfortable saying Remembrance Day is “about” one thing or another. But I have always felt the emphasis that is placed on honouring those who are “willing to die for their country” is misplaced: it is far more horrifying to me that we ask our soldiers to kill for their countries. Especially if, inevitably, they should end up killing the wrong people, for the wrong reasons.

I’ve only written a couple of articles for The Beaver Canada’s History that touch on military history, but in both I was struck by the essential seriousness of senior military men about what they do, as contrasted with the sometimes flippant way politicians treat their responsibility for the lives of their citizens and of other countries.

For instance, there once was what amounted to a civil war in a country very far away. Canada had no interest there at all, but we were told by allies, who we thought were in a position to know, that our help was needed to combat an internationally coordinated threat that stood in opposition to every freedom we in the West held dear.

Our allies had bad intelligence. We sent our soldiers to a hostile environment, unprepared, under equipped, and essentially asked them to take sides in a conflict in which we did not understand either of the combatants. As a result, we ended up propping up an illegitimate and oppressive government, and contributed to the deaths of untold civilians. The threat, in the end, was less part of an international, anti-Western movement as it was an indigenous uprising.

The threat I am talking about was not terrorism, the country was not Afghanistan. Our troops were not called on to call in airstrikes on weddings. But in 1932, because of a panicky British ambassador in El Salvador who saw Communists behind every lamp-post, the Canadian navy was ended up providing support to a military dictator who took Mussolini as an inspiration, had come to power in a coup only three months before, and was recognized as legitimate nowhere (except, oddly, Norway).

The two Canadian ships had been sent by Canadian politicians who weren’t entirely sure where El Salvador was, and didn’t care to find out. They had been told the country was being overrun by Communists, and they believed it. They were told good English speaking plantation owners – Brits, Americans – were being murdered in their beds, and they believed it. They were told lies.

Victor Brodeur, the Captain with a conscience
Image from: http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo9/no4/23-book5-livre5-eng.asp

The Captain of those ships – a French Canadian called Victor Brodeur – was able to tell them the truth after the fact. He told them the vicious dictator of El Salvador was able, because Canadian vessels were securing his western port, to free up his own troops. Those soldiers were able to massacre 40,000 Pipil natives, essentially wiping out a group that formed the labour force of the British and American owned plantations and that were treated worse than dirt in the country. Venturing out into the countryside (something British ambassador that had demanded military intervention had never done) Brodeur saw that the uprising had consisted of burning some farm buildings – no plantation owners were killed, no infrastructure damaged. Shown the massacre site by some proud and preening Salvadoran generals a few days later, it was revealed that exactly one Communist party membership card was found among the corpses – many of whom were wearing white sheets, now splattered in blood, in the vain hope they would be spared death as non-combatants.

Brodeur, conscious of what his country’s actions had wrought, wrote all of this in his report to Ottawa on his return. There was no follow-up from the politicians that had sent him there, no complaints to Britain, no international censure for El Salvador. However, in an example of the high seriousness of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy that has sadly only been matched since, one far-sighted and noble MP did bravely rise in the House of Commons to complain about the cost of the fuel the ships consumed to get there.


Natalie Joan said...

A story I did not know, and I pride myself on knowing my Canadian history.
I do think it is important to take a day to honour those who gave (or risked) their lives, but my disconnect has always been the message that they did it "bravely and willingly" and "for Canada." Each soldier's reasons for fighting were far more varied, and often conflicted. Doesn't mean it is less honourable, but the oversimplification doesn't do them justice.
Few people realize that there was just as much resistance to and questioning of the first World War as there is to Afghanistan, but in 1918 we couldn't all air our views on Twitter.

Mark Reynolds said...

The few Canadian historians that I've read generally treat the incident as trivia ("Hey - we were in El Salvador? Isn't that crazy?"), and don't delve into what happened outside of the two vessels involved. To be fair, that's what initially drew me in as well. Brodeur's final report was a masterpiece of understatement, which is why I think the implications of what he was saying was lost on later writers (I'm not claiming special insight: I had The Google to fill in the El Salvador side of things).

Re: the First World War - I still find it infuriating that opposition to that war is still generally framed as Quebecois "deserters" disloyally refusing to serve their country (as opposed to quite logically not wanting to die to preserve the 19th century Imperial order of things). It was pretty much only first generation British immigrants that had high rates of volunteerism for WWI: outside of that demographic, "English" Canadians were just as reluctant to fight as those in Quebec.

(Thanks to your comment, I want to set up a Twitter feed for the ghost of Henri Bourassa. Think he'd mind?)

Natalie Joan said...

That's an amazing idea. Been considering setting up a historical Twitter feed myself. Haven't yet chosen a subject, though.